fears and aspirations

Happy Year of the Snake! Had dinner with family and friends at my aunt’s house last night, and we ended up going in a circle around the table introducing ourselves, then each sharing one fear and one aspiration. (Yes, this happened.)

Found out that my cousin sees herself as pretty conservative; she has a fear of taking risks, because she’s a perfectionist and she wants to be able to control things. Her brother has a fear of not living life to the fullest, so he actively tries to make the most of every day. And it all comes from the same place — wanting to succeed and fearing failure, and wanting to embrace possibility. The fear I shared was being held back by fear (a meta-fear, as it were) — I’m afraid of letting fear win and not experiencing new things.

Over the past few years, I have pushed myself to embrace failure, to see that not being good at something isn’t really that scary. Sometimes, you just have to do things that are terrifying. Important life skill. Every time I go on stage, I’m scared. And every time I finish a set, I get to have that moment right after when I realize that I’m still alive. And everything is going to be OK.

I did a few shows this week. Performed “native tongue” for my co-workers at our all-staff meeting, and I started by saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was going to be this nervous.” After, our CFO’s wife, who was facilitating a training on self-care for that meeting, thanked us (other co-worker covered a Taylor Swift song) for sharing something and being vulnerable. And then later that day, I got to hear from co-workers who connected with the piece and have gone through similar experiences.

Thursday night was [common ground], and I performed “23.” I knew it was going to be difficult; it has taken me weeks to get it to a point where it felt done. But a few other queer artists went before me, and then we had the Partnership of LGBT Organizations speaking about being excluded from Santa Ana’s Tet parade. I ended up revising my set right before I went on to include more love poems. It felt right, and it was what I wanted to share with the audience.

23 excerpt

Saturday, we held a mini-TNC for students from the Claremont Colleges who were taking a day-long tour of Little Tokyo to talk about art and activism in our communities. The staff shared about our relationships to the space, and also our views on art. I said something along the lines of seeing poetry as a way to move beyond academic writing and to find a way to be more honest with myself. And I write love poems because I want to share a celebratory view of the queer experience. I want to celebrate love and being able to live fully, more honestly.

This feels like it’s going to be a good year. Thank you to all of the organizers and audiences who are providing spaces for people to share and heal. Here’s to a year of being honest, embracing love, and striving to take risks and push past fear. Gong xi fa cai, friends.

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23

at 23
i believed
that if i could just forget the taste of my first girlfriend’s lips,
i might still turn out OK

that if i could just meet a nice boy,
settle down, start a family
i might not lose my family

that wasn’t so long ago
and some days i still forget that i’ve moved past that now
i am like cotton in an overstuffed couch;
i am always coming out

when i was 23
i spent 40 hours a week with middle schoolers
who did not quite understand the violence of uttering ‘that’s so gay’
kids who cleverly told me,
‘miss, miss, “gay” just means “happy”’
you know,
i wish it did
i really wish it did

try to explain that gay means happy
to the 12-year-old kids
who keep notes on the inside of their arms
whose wrists bear the scars of tally marks
of how many other 12-year-old kids called me ‘faggot’ today

the year i was 23,
i met a 17-year-old boy named James
when he was 14, James was shoved back into the closet
by too many locker room boys

a year later,
James tilted up his chin and strode back out

two years later,
James stood in front of vermont’s house and senate judiciary
and let them know
he’d like to meet a nice boy some day,
settle down, start a family

you see, James told me,
he’s a romantic
and one day, he wants to be proposed to under the stars

and we both knew then
and we both know now
we are fighting for so much more than wedding rings
matching tuxes
hers and hers towels
— but it’s a start

and maybe one day, all of this means that we’ll be one step closer to easing the tear-jerked pain of saying, ‘I’m gay,’ for the first time.
maybe one day, we won’t have trans kids bartering bodies for rocks on the corner
maybe one day, wives will be able to hold the hands of their wives as they’re wasting away in hospital rooms
maybe one day, wives won’t be wasting away in hospital rooms
[health insurance, etc.]

i’m not 23 anymore
but my mother still asks me sometimes
if i wish i were born a boy
for what it’s worth, i don’t
no matter how fucking amazing i look in a three-piece suit

but that’s not the point
because i loved a boy, once, who wished he were born a boy
who grew up girl
but still became one of the strongest men i know
— a good man —
some little boys grow up to be strong women, too
but we have to let them grow

so many of us may wish we were born into different lives
but please
do not take that next step toward reincarnation

please
do not take the razor blade to your kite strings
i can teach you how to fly
and bridges, you know,
were built for crossing troubled waters
not for leaping into them

stay, please.
this life needs you
James and I need you
please,
stay

bridges can be so alluring
when the world is screaming, ‘faggot, you will never learn to fly’
and maybe all of this is cliche

but I want to tell you this:
It gets better.
you get better
stronger
braver
less afraid to love

it’s gonna get better
we’re going to get there
some day
stay
please
stay
turn your back on bridges, on rope, on razors, on shame

stay,
please,
stay.

you learn,
eventually,
to shield yourself from pain

your toes,
they learn
— how to curl for balance
at those moments when you are poised on the ledge
your toes
will grip
for balance,
for staying

please
draw your limbs into yourself
water the roots of your own tree
please
grant yourself permission
to nourish your own dreams
pull everything you have into the safety of your own embrace

this is hard
i know.

it is still hard,
for me,
three years after 23

how
do we learn
to let go again?

but i am learning
that i am done with shields and walls
no more
cradling my heart
like bruised fruit

no more fear
or, at the very least,
no more letting fear win

i am here
to stay

stay here with me

and if you
are still crouching in the closet
please
use that time
to find sight in the dark
because i know a boy
who’s waiting for you
under the stars

On passing and privilege

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a post for a few weeks now, some grand statement on coming out on the Internet, and what that means. As I’ve not gotten around to writing it (n.b. I choose to describe this not as procrastination, but as the deep, meditative period that is an essential part of the writing process), what I wanted to write about has shifted. On some level, I think, I wanted to write this post but was already bored by it. I have come out so many times, to so many people, and have read about so many other people coming out, that I feel like it’s a moot point.*

But it isn’t. Because I have come to discover another level, the one that is still holding on to fear, closets, shame, internalized homophobia, and privilege. I’m fairly certain that most people I’ve met post-college, those who are at least familiar enough to be considered acquaintances, assume or know I’m queer. I cut my hair last year, after I stopped working in middle schools, because I was tired of passing. As straight. The unexpected consequence, one that I’m still getting used to, is that now I don’t always pass (or, more precisely “read”) as female.

A few weekends ago, I was in line for the women’s restroom at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and informed me, “The men’s restroom is on the other side.” In that split second, I experienced not anger and frustration, but confusion and violation. (Don’t worry, anger and frustration came into play later.)

A few days later, as I was still figuring out my reaction(s), I brought up the incident with a queer friend who has a different relationship with gender and passing. I was trying to explain why I was upset, and our conversation centered on the moment of misunderstanding. My friend suggested that the incident was upsetting because the woman in the bathroom made assumptions about how I identify and tried to determine and impose where I belong, and not upsetting because of the gender policing, per se. I disagreed, but couldn’t articulate why I found both problematic.

The next day, my friend brought the conversation up again and said that one thing I’d repeated stuck out: “I identify as female.” His experiences with gender, sexuality, passing — and danger — are different than mine, and, he said, he was interpreting my experience through his own.**

Having that second conversation helped crystallize what I was feeling. In the moment, I felt violated — to have been touched, labeled different, confronted by someone else’s assumptions. And I also felt violated because I know where every bathroom in that building is; I stage manage in the courtyard outside of the Union Center for the Arts, and I drink a lot of water.

But I also felt that powerful mix of shame and fear that too many people in too many communities know far too well, in the moments when a dominant group, in the most subtle (or not at all subtle) of ways, leverages its reminders about who is in power, what is considered normal, acceptable, morally correct. I am almost certain that the woman who tapped me on the shoulder thought she was doing me a favor. In spite of the fact that I was in the middle of a very crowded line of very femininely-dressed women. In spite of the fact that the men’s restroom is closer to the theater exit, so we had both walked by it to get to the women’s restroom. And in spite of the fact that I was wearing heels and holding my clutch, oops, JK, that’s not my Saturday night outfit of choice. I felt fear. And I felt powerless. In that moment, the best I could come up with was stammering “I’m female,” in something that was far closer to an apology than I care to admit. Because it wasn’t just about that moment. It brought back the first time I experienced transphobia in a very real, very public way and felt, to my bones, physically unsafe. It brought back the smirk of the man on the bus who took the aisle seat and kept edging closer to me as I shrank against the window, until I finally got up to stand by the driver, and the anger I felt when I took off running for my friend’s place, knowing that he had gotten off at the same stop and was nonchalantly, smirkingly, sauntering in my direction. It brought back the time I was in Grenoble with my friend Liz and we were surrounded by a group of teenage boys who wanted to know what kind of Asian we were, where we were from, where we were going, as they kept circling closer and taunting us, with just enough edge of threat in their voices to make me start trying to figure out which one looked weakest, how to edge closer to the wall to close off the circle and keep them all in front of us. It brought back the painful memory that the first time a girlfriend held my hand in public, my first thought was not about us, but about our safety.

People who don’t fit in to dominant culture learn how to make these calculations, learn how to identify escape routes and the quickest way to safety, learn to look for recognition and disapproval in the eyes of strangers. It is a violation when someone exerts their power over you, whether as a threat or as a reminder. 

I’m putting in a subhead here to transition back to talking about being out
Originally, I wanted to write a version of this post because I needed to submit an artist bio for Common Ground OC, for their July 5 show. As the deadline approached, I realized that I had yet to announce on the Internet, “Hey Internet, I identify as queer!” And I hesitated. Not, like, got-back-in-the-closet-considered-dating-men-exclusively-grew-my-hair-back-out hesitated, but there was a definite pause. A moment of reflection, I suppose.

I was downloading Paintbrush for Mac, but then I got bored of waiting. Imagine that I drew boxes around my name and “queer” and added an arrow and something snarky. Also, sorry that all of my blog images are actually just screen caps.

My mind came back to the idea of “rational outness,” something one of my queer professors had brought up in class as a way of explaining that awkward moment when the practice of being out in some spheres (where it’s safe) and not being out in others (where it’s not). Funny thing is, those spheres kind of overlap a lot. At the time I learned the phrase “rational outness,” it was a blessing. It gave me a way to view coming out as a step-by-step process, one that I had control over and could share with people as I chose to.*** But now, here, four or so years later, I’ve realized that “rational outness,” for me, emphasis on “me,” and this being about my experience, is a copout. It’s a way for me to stay partly in the closet, because I’m afraid of losing something — safety, yes, but also privilege, authority, power, relationships.

One of my former co-workers, who identified as queer, sort of, but really chose not to identify, explained that she didn’t want to identify as queer, publicly, because she was able to make a stronger case for equal rights when people considered her a straight ally, just like she was able to do anti-racist work as a white person. Something about this, also, feels like a copout. And I recognize that I am viewing her personal decisions through the lens of my own experience, and my own decisions about when to be out. But for me, here, now, rational outness isn’t enough. I can’t help but think of the shared root in “rational” and “rationalize,” as in “attempt to explain or justify with reasons, even if those reasons are not true.” As in, find excuses to stay in the closet and benefit from heteronormative privilege.

To put it simply, and I am quoting from a wise, wise friend here: Fuck that. Fuck THAT.

I am done with hiding, with being 97.03% out of the closet, done with glossing over gender pronouns out of respect for elders, out of fear of upsetting people, out of wanting to protect family members from uncomfortable conversations. I am done with wondering whether I should keep my hair so I can find a respectable job. (Turns out, not a big deal. I have been dissuaded, however, from getting a fade with my nonprofit’s logo in the back of my head.) One of my mentors (“gay den mom,” really) asked, more than once, “Why would you want to work for a place where you couldn’t be yourself?” I don’t know, why would I? I wouldn’t. I don’t. Done with that.

I want to make this clear: I get to write this from a place of privilege. I am lucky to be able to work at a place that fully embraces women, people of color, queer people, people who stand in different places on the gender spectrum, people who have experienced mental health issues, violence, homelessness, and a system that has tried to break them. I am lucky to work for an organization that believes, to its core, in empowerment, at the level of every individual human who comes through our doors. I don’t have to choose between being able to be fully myself and being able to support myself. We should all be so lucky.

As important as it is to have straight allies, to have male feminists, to have white, anti-racist activists be part of our conversations and struggles for social justice …

It is absolutely critical that people speak for themselves. To stand up for their identities, whether as a quote-unquote marginalized voice, or as a member of a historically underrepresented group, or as an out, proud, queer, female-identified, Taiwanese-American (but ethnically Chinese), second generation poet/nerd/blogger.

Having a voice matters. Using your voice makes a difference. Embracing who you are and how you choose to express yourself is a way to live each day more fully human.

I am a poet. I write from multiple perspectives. Being queer, being Asian, being second-generation, being an English major, being really into puns, being human — and, sometimes, being deeply afraid — all of these perspectives influence my work.

They also inspire it.

* Although, of course, it’s apparently possible to be too blasé about coming out; once, I kind of just slipped it into a conversation with a friend while we were in line for the bathroom at a bar. She almost fainted. She claims it was the heat and her low alcohol tolerance. I think she got the vapors.

** For anyone taking notes on this kind of thing, I believe this is a pretty damn good example of what “decent human being” means. Like, for real, how many people that you know seek you out after having reflected on a conversation you had in passing to apologize for an assumption they later realized they made, and to make sure that you’re OK? Also, hey, now that you’re flipping through your mental Rolodex identifying those friends, how ’bout you give them a call and tell them they’re awesome?

*** Except, I guess, for the time when the news editor yelled across the newsroom of the Daily Bruin, “Audrey, are you a lesbian?” I am calling you out, Anthony J. Pesce, not cool. His justification: It led to dates (mine).

I’m not laughing

Note: I edited this post on Sept. 15, 2014, to put asterisks in the t-slur in a quote, as this is a transmisogynistic slur that is not mine to reclaim.

“If racism is the punchline, I don’t get the joke.” — Julian Bond

I had a really frustrating afternoon today: It was an ignorant comment (the fourth or fifth in succession over the course of a week), one of those off-hand, throwaway remarks that might be a joke, but just really isn’t funny. Earlier in the day, I’d had another discussion about not using a slur as an insult, and the person I was talking to actually defended the comment by saying it might have been an accurate description of the people she was talking about.

I am seldom at a loss for words. (People who know me IRL, back me up.) But I was just, like, “I can’t even, what … no.” And then I was upset with myself, because, you know, teaching moments, environments of inclusivity, social justice and public education, etc. But also, take some responsibility. I was describing this incident at home during a TN meeting, and Chris asked, “Was it racism by choice?” by which he meant, was it deliberate racism, or did someone just not know better? I think once you’re old enough to think for yourself (moving target for some people, true), all of it is by choice. It doesn’t matter how you were brought up or what you were told as a child — take some responsibility.*

In any case, I’ve been meaning to write commentary about this fairly excellent article for a few weeks, and now I just want to post huge chunks of it because it contextualizes a lot of today’s angst really well. You know, racism, privilege, oppression, etc. I think the commentary post was delayed by by not having much to add other than, “Yes, I think you argued that point excellently.” Sometimes we need to write things, and sometimes someone else gets there first, and I think you can just go ahead and be happy that at least it’s been articulated.

To that end, I am happy that this has been articulated, by Social Justice League: “Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a ‘nicer’ world. … [T]he conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.”

I’m going to take some liberties and bullet-point summarize/excerpt some of the highlights, but I really would rather that you read the whole thing in its entirety.

The Revolution Will Not Be Polite:

  • “Several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.”
    • Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!).
  • “An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people.”
  • Conflating nice + good –> control over marginalized people, by demanding that people asking for rights from the people oppressing them behave in a certain way
And just before the conclusion, there is this fantastic bit of commentary:

I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “t*****” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

When I was writing my honors thesis, my friend Maggie had to force me to stop reading the comments on news articles about same-sex marriage. Repeatedly. (My thesis was about media representations of gender transgression, so the toxic drivel was at least serving some academic purpose, but it was also corroding my soul, my belief in the inherent good in people, my hope for society, etc., not to mention the pain of being forced to read some of the most poorly constructed sentences ever.) Along with the spewing hate (from “both sides”) and bashing was the aforementioned fundamental misunderstanding of privilege and the devolving cycle of homophobic comment –> ad hominem attack* –> retaliatory ad hominem attack + comment along the lines of “See, gay people can’t even have a civil discussion, why do they deserve marriage rights?”
The next graf of the article includes the following analysis:
“So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people.”
Today I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, and I didn’t want to seem like the angry QPOC, and I also just didn’t feel like it was my duty to have to enlighten someone who was blithely, happily, obliviously being obtuse. I was mad, and I didn’t want to use my words. It wasn’t worth my time and emotional capital to have that conversation then with that person. But the next person who makes the next comment the next time …

*I have more thoughts about education and critical thinking, obviously, but that’s a topic for another post, or five, or twenty. Just started reading bell hooks’ “Teaching to Transgress.” Get me through this, Gloria!

** Including one of the most confusing tactics, accusing homophobic commenters of being secret closet gays. Which, I guess, yeah that makes sense to call them something they find morally repugnant, but your use of sexual orientation as an insult is reifying the norm that homosexuality is the worst thing ever.

Brain mush: “Twilight: Los Angeles”

I went to a Facing History Community Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith tonight. I will probably blog more things about it, along with some thoughts about LA and community and 1992 and race and things. For now, I’m thinking about this response Smith had to an audience question about her interview with Young-Soon Han (whose voice is featured in “Swallowing the Bitterness”).

The question came from a Korean-American woman who was living in New York in 1992: “Was there anything that didn’t make it onto the page? … Was she standing on top of her store with a gun?”

My transcription skills are not what they once were, although having the work iPad with me was helpful. (n.b. The iPads were donated; my nonprofit is all about fiscal responsibility.) The following is parts of Smith’s response:

“The feeling of the whole interview (was that) I was with an elder in the community. … There was a sense of a community, even though it was just the four of us.”

[not verbatim: She was also grieving because her husband had died not too long before that. She also kept apologizing for her English.]

“She wanted that feeling of community, but she said there’s just ultimately too much difference, and she couldn’t make that bridge. I felt that one of the remedies for her — one way that people dealt with the trauma was to try to learn more, so very often Korean-American people that I spoke to were very savvy of the broad race picture, and how they sometimes even saw themselves as proxies for white people.”

Also thinking about the opening remarks from Marti Tippens Murphy, the LA Director of Facing History. Paraphrasing: “As a child, I was told if I was ever in danger, to go to a police officer for help. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that not every child is told that.”

My roommate and I discussed race, erasures, model minorities, interracial dating, and the Asian-American experience on the way home, and then while throwing together a late dinner. More thoughts later. In the meantime, if you haven’t had the chance to see Anna Deavere Smith perform, get thee to a YouTubery. Also, read the book.

Three things I’m thinking about: bowling leagues, poetry, making things

Oh hey, remember when I used to blog? Easing myself back in with a “three things” post.

1) Bowling leagues

At our all-staff meeting last Thursday, we had  a guest speaker (as we often do) Bill Parent, Associate Dean at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. For a three-hour lecture on the state of the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles, I could have done with a little less on the history of the United States as it relates to civil society. (It was really interesting, but that part lasted beyond the first hour, and there was some really interesting data at the end that we flew through. If you’re curious about nonprofit funding and growth over the last decade or so, check it out here.)

The middle portion of the lecture was about social capital and effective civil society, and Bill brought up Robert Putnam’s study of Italian cities. He assigned students to walk into a police station and say that they thought they had a broken arm, then timed how long it took for them to receive treatment. There was a strong correlation between the amount of time to get treatment and the number of choral groups in the city. (Bill said the number “correlates perfectly,” but I’d want to see data before repeating that claim.)

Putnam concluded that the number of choral groups is a strong indicator of deep community ties, as well as a way for people to “get together with a purpose.” That intentional group membership correlates with higher trust levels, increased civic participation, and “things working,” as Bill put it. Putnam repeated the study in the States, by analyzing the density of bowling leagues* (and the decline in membership nationwide) and concluded some things about people caring about each other and being in communities and stuff.

Anyway, at our next department meeting, we discussed the all-staff, since a lot of the discussion was around nonprofit funding, and as the development department, knowing about that kind of thing is important. Boss lady asked us to write down all of the groups we belong to now, had belonged to in college, and had belonged to in high school, and to rank them based on level of participation. She asked us whether our periods of highest group membership correlated with stronger feelings of community engagement. Then we went around the table and answered the question “Is LA a community?” Seven nos, most of them definitive, a few with an asterisk (along the lines of “LA doesn’t feel like a community, but neighborhoods do/I belong to sub-communities.”) The only yes was from our newest staff member, who moved back to LA from San Diego last weekend. So … yeah.

It was interesting to hear my co-workers describe the ways they make LA feel like home for them, though; I love that I work with people who say things like “I felt disconnected, so I started a writing/cooking group.” My list for current groups also made me happy; I think this is the most intentional I’ve been about group membership ever. In college, the Daily Bruin and the rowing team were the two big groups I was part of. In high school, I was in a ton of groups formed around extracurriculars, and I felt deeply engaged within the community, but it was a narrow school- (and for a year, district-) based community.

Now, though, I have strong ties to the people I served with during my City Years, I have a tight circle of roommates and college friends (plus an affinity member) that work at spending time together, and I have Tuesday Night Project, which is a constant reminder that there is good and art in the world. Also some other groups.

2) Poetry and self-reflection, etc.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” — Joan Didion

Traci asked me to open for the upcoming Tuesday Night Cafe, in celebration of National Poetry Month. Actually, she asked if I have any new pieces, and I replied that I have two in progress, and I agreed to take the set, hoping that the deadline would force me to finish these poems — I’ve been working on one of them for, like, six months, and it’s driving me crazy. Four days later, poems are done. (Thanks in large part to Syd, who is crashing in our living room and has been subjected to me reading poem fragments and drafts at her from Tuesday to Thursday nights. THOSE ARE THE PERILS OF COUCHSURFING, OK? Captive audience!)

Anyway, poems. I was going to read this piece, “Homecoming” that I wrote during Session 26 of The Undeniables, plus a haiku and two new pieces and “native tongue.” Then I had the epiphany pictured below.

This is the first time I’ve worked on two pieces at the same time (the second piece was born out of trying to give up on the first), and now I’m practicing all of them together and realizing that there’s a ton of imagery about going home, not being able to go home, feeling rootless, and not being able to sleep. I just saved myself three years of therapy. Thanks, poetry!

3) Making things

Other awesome perks of Syd crashing here:

  • Conversations
  • She makes things
Last weekend, we all sat around with the front doors open, reading and listening to music and enjoying the weather. Then other people came over, and there was some quality porch-sitting. Syd picked and squeezed lemons from the backyard, and I harvested some of the lavender that is overtaking the front walk, then everyone consumed snacks and lavender lemonade and ironic self-deprecatory comments about our bohemian hipsterhood. Mason jars were involved.
I brought lavender lemonade to work a few days last week, and my mason jars are currently the only watertight containers I have, so I’ve had a nice porch-like week all week. Also, Syd has been cold-steeping coffee and leaving it in jars in the fridge, and on Thursday I came home to baked tofu and asparagus.**
I can’t really remember what this section was going to be about. Mostly mason jars and finally getting around to harvesting lemons and lavender. Also, cooking, or something. I am done with this post, because the kitchen smells like fresh-squeezed lemons, so I’m going to go make some simple syrup and make Arnold Palmers with the iced tea I’ve been steeping. Mason jars will be involved.

Communities and groups and stuff. Comment about it.

* Bill asked us to guess what the American counterpart of choral groups would be, and of course two of us said “bowling leagues,” because we’d read the study and are competitive and like to ruin everyone else’s fun in the interest of winning. I love that about my co-workers. (We’re actually competitive in a friendly way, just very intensely so.)

** Unfortunately, she said no when I asked her to marry me.

Kindle courtship 

I’m the type of ultra-practical traveler who packs one jacket and no umbrella if there’s less than a 98 percent chance of rain (even if it’s pouring when I’m headed out the door, I might still decide not to bring the umbrella.) If I think I can get away with it, I’ll bring one pair of pants (two if you count the jeans I’m wearing). I hate excess luggage, and since I usually use a duffel bag, and don’t check anything, I know that whatever I pack, I’m going to be hauling around for at least a few hours.

But if I’m going to have more than 12 minutes of downtime somewhere, I always pack a book. For a week-long trip, I bring multiple. When I went to Taiwan to see my parents last summer (for two and a half weeks), I brought nine books. And made my mom take me to the library. Three times.

It was only a matter of time before someone bought me a Kindle. Opening my Christmas present from my brother was a strange mix of excitement, gratitude, and overwhelming guilt. I love books! They are tactile and comforting (and heavy, yes) and smell like paper. They are physical symbols of the enduring power of literature, language, and the struggle to express the human experience with the imperfect tools that words and syntax are.

The Kindle is sleek and convenient and light (these are selling points, I suppose). As soon as I opened the box, I started sifting through the free books on Amazon, and I relatively instantly had five different short story anthologies and Jane Eyre packed into a less-than-6-ounce device. On which the Oxford English Dictionary comes standard. Drool.

I took my new toy on the bus to work the next day. It’s much easier to hold the Kindle in my lap, and my wingspan is smaller, since I don’t have to hold open a page and worry about my elbows being in other people’s business. I couldn’t really get into the free short story anthologies, though, because they were somewhat haphazardly arranged, and the chapter navigation wasn’t set up well. I switched to Jane Eyre. I didn’t like reading Brontë sans book smell. I reverted back to the O. Henry Prize Stories, 2003, (also free, thanks LA Public Library system).

Fast-forward a few weeks. I took the train to my aunt’s to celebrate Chinese New Year’s and brought a full load of laundry with me. Trade-off: no books! My computer was on, so I decided to throw a book onto my Kindle. I’ve been meaning to read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, but it was $11.99. I’m fairly certain I can get it used for $5, max. I bought The Patron Saint of Liars instead, since it was $3.99. The whole process took all of two minutes, since Amazon has steadily reduced the friction of digital consumerism by storing credit card information on user accounts.

I read at Union Station for a few h0urs. When I stood up, I slipped my Kindle into the front pocket of my hoodie. It was all seamless and wonderful. After a few chapters, I finally got into the narrative, finally became less aware of pushing buttons as I read.

So: I’m definitely sold on the Kindle for convenience while traveling, but I still don’t feel like I’m reading a book. Which is maybe a good thing … I guess? (Clive Thompson rails against skeumorphs in the February edition of Wired — no link! I read the article in print, OK?) Something essential about the immersive experience is missing. [Just spent a good 5-10 minutes trying to find a batch of photos from a summer program, to pull one of me sitting under a lovely Bryn Mawr tree reading, but I think I archived it on my external hard drive and deleted it off my laptop.]

Anyway, books. I like pages. I like being able to flip back and forth between the page I’m reading on and the sneaky forshadowy passage from three pages back. I like the feeling of pages. I love that the most common type of hardcover binding is called “perfect binding.” I like being able to jot sarcastic notes in the margins. With a pen. And I like being able to correct typos.* (I am not kidding.) I also love browsing through used bookstores, picking up books at random, and judging them by their covers, their wear, and an arbitrarily selected excerpt that I determine.

I feel a healthy dose of Luddite coming on,** and I am also looking for a book recommendation for my Kindle. (Something that is fiction, typo-free, and less than $5, the general going rate for used novels in excellent condition at my favorite used bookshop.) Le sigh.

* OK, also, speaking of typos: WTF, mate? There were so many errors in Patron Saint of Liars, including more than 15 instances of “I” being replaced with “1,” a randomly inserted colon, and missing end quotation marks. Is that a Kindle thing? There is one mistake in Bel Canto (also by Ann Patchett — read it!); “vial” is written as “vile.” I edited it in my friend’s copy which I may have decided to keep, sorry, Linh! I will buy you another!

** For serious, my cell phone died just before my brother bought me the Kindle, and dude at the Verizon store said that they couldn’t fix the battery port, since Samsung stopped making both my phone and the newer version that replaced it. At this point, I might as well get a damn iPhone, but I refuse to let the Internet rewire my brain! For now.

native tongue: poetry and prose

I’m calling this a then and now, but it’s probably closer to a translation. I remember reading a list of writing exercises (in middle school, I think), that suggested writing poetry, putting it away for a few months, then turning it into prose, putting that away, and turning that piece back into a poem. It has taken me just over a decade to try this. [For the record, I am choosing to see this not as a sign of some inherent need to procrastinate, but of (a) having an excellent memory and (b) setting really long-term goals, then following through.]

Anyway, as I mentioned before, I’ve been writing through The Undeniables since the beginning of November. (See the terrible first piece here. Or read a piece I’m actually a little proud of.) Coming up with topics has been kind of a struggle, the same struggle that has been a really convenient excuse not to write fiction for the past two decade or so. (I was a very prolific author in early elementary school.)

Today, I forced myself to submit a piece to a lit mag, something that has been on my calendar for the last three months (long-term goals, not procrastination). Instead of pulling together some of my Undeniables fiction (procrastination, goal fail), I ended up turning in a spoken-word piece, and I was going to cheat and post it to my Undeniables blog, too, but pretty much the only requirement of the Writers Workshop is that you write every day, so instead I turned the poem into prose. Fin introduction.

native tongue
(April 25, 2011)

It’s that ‘compliment’ that I know is going to make me angry:
‘Wow! You speak English so well. You’re so — eloquent! Where did you learn to talk like that?’

Where did I learn to talk like that?
Motherfucker, I was born here.

I study poems like the lines of my hands, devour novels like short stories, curl up at night with the Oxford English Dictionary tucked under my pillow –-
Actually, that was hyperbole, exaggeration used as rhetorical device.
Have you seen the Oxford English Dictionary? It’s, like, real real big

If you slept with the OED tucked under your pillow, you’d wake up with a crick in your neck and a spine as stiff as the one you pressed your cheek against.

That was wordplay, asshole.

I do double entendres, too.
I have earned my poetic license,
spent my hours behind the wheel,
passed your accent tests, too.

You — do you know what this language has cost me?
I am first-generation Chinese illiterate.
I cannot read my grandfather’s poems.
I live 6,776 miles away from the ashes of my grandmother’s bones.
And I am still searching for a way to write the word ‘home’ in a tongue that feels like my own.
I am still searching for cracks in the concrete to sink my naked roots in.

Maybe that’s why the word ‘diaspora’ depresses me.
Every time I hear it, I think of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind.

They can’t go home again.
I can’t go home again.
And I know I will write this poem again.

I know I will write this poem again
So maybe my rage is displaced —
I am aiming my anger at easy-target bigots
Instead of facing the fact that sometimes I resent my parents, for turning their backs on Taiwan,
for leaving behind tea and rice for Coke and Big Macs,
for the pursuit of an American dream built on San Francisco railroads,
built on Chinese workers backs.

Maybe I’m tired of seeing the banana in the mirror,
yellow on the outside, white on the inside,
split between a culture I’m surrounded by,
and one I don’t even really know.

Maybe I’m afraid to face my disappointment in myself,
for choosing to study French instead of Chinese;
I cannot read the stories my grandmother told to her four children.

And maybe I’m embarrassed by my shame,
embarrassed to be embarrassed when strangers mispronounce my name,
the way I mispronounce the phrases my parents spoke as schoolchildren,
the phrases they would speak if they went home again.

They can go home again.
But I — I can’t go home again
And I know I will write this poem again
In English,
which I speak
so well.

native tongue
(December 22, 2011)

Every time someone comments on my writing or the way I speak, I feel myself controlling my reaction. Most times, I accept the compliment at face value, but I’m always aware of undertones, or of the way faces register surprise. These days, most people are sophisticated enough to know they’re not supposed to ask where people “are really from,” but the question is still there, their faces comical as they desperately try to control their expressions and mask their curiosity.

Once, when I was on vacation in China, I overheard an older white couple struggling with chopsticks and trying to figure out if they could procure other utensils. When I offered to help, in fluent English, the woman practically jumped, like I was a secret agent sneakily blending in with the locals. (For the record, no Chinese person ever mistook me as a native, even before I opened my Coke-drinking mouth.)

The woman carefully pulled her eyebrows back to their normal resting place, thanked me for the offer, stuttered a bit, and finally settled for commenting on how eloquent I was.Eloquent. I hate that these strangers have imbued such a beautiful word with the dark stain of their own ignorance. I imagine running into that same woman on a street in California, wonder if she would speak slowly and loudly to me, then jump the same way at my rapid-fire, unaccented response.

During that same trip, I cursed my own inability to blend in, the way my tongue felt clumsy trying to wrap around the sounds my ears were used to hearing; there was some kind of disconnect in my brain that I just couldn’t get around, a physical metaphor of the vast gap between how I’d imagined my return to the Motherland and the hourly reminders that I was a foreigner here, too.

I jotted down fragments of thoughts in a notebook I had shoved into my back pocket, composed a few lines of what later became a spoken-word piece grappling with hyphenated identity. At the time, though, I was bitter that even my sense of loss was expressed in English, that I couldn’t document the things I was feeling in the language I grew up with but had never mastered. As a poet, being functionally conversational is not much better than not being able to speak a language at all; the nuances of words, of their tone, the complexities of their accreted meaning — all of the things that make language beautiful — are swept away when you’re using words as crude tools, enough to get by on. I wanted art. I wanted poetry. I wanted to be able to read the poems my grandfather composed during his own twenty-something existential crises.

The word “diaspora,” from the Greek for “scattering, dispersion,” has always had a haunting quality to me. All I can think of is people being thrown to the wind like dandelion seeds, incapable of finding their way back to their roots. My own parents’ journey to the States was already an echo of their own parents’ migrations: China to Taiwan to San Francisco, following the paths of so many others who, to the bai ren, all look the same. Even the stories start to sound alike, so that the second-generation kids, eager to bust out of another family history lesson and rejoin their American friends in pickup football, start to conflate the details into one shared narrative. We gave up our family to come here. To make a better life for you. To provide you with opportunities. So you could vote. So you could be free. So you could have a career, daughter. Get an education. Study hard. Make our sacrifice worthwhile.

For them, the storytellers, fate has already been sealed. Their greatest fears are realized when they finally understand that they, too, have lost the poetry of their native tongue. Their American schoolchildren do not hear the melody of their words; their alphabet-blinded eyes cannot recognize the beauty of delicate brushstrokes, the visual puns and secret messages waiting to be discovered. What use, then, is it to speak in metaphor, to imprint their daily banter with idioms?

The irony is deep, generational. I have taken the poetry of Chinese away from my parents, robbed them of an audience; they, my birthright voice, by surrounding me in a culture that promised success and demanded perfect diction as its price.

Somewhere, floating above our heads, dandelion seeds are being tossed in air currents, desperately seeking fertile soil to sink in shallow roots.

Transactive memory, etc.

This is a draft from 1:40  a.m. on July 23, 2011:

Title: Transactive memory, mind-body problem, external hard drives

New Yorker article on Churchlands:

conversation about fear of having so much information stored — I guess it’s good to have everything if your apartment burned in a fire — is that our definition of everything now?

toni morrison house burning down, laptop stolen — mom: you can just write it again

anxiety over losing journals; piece of identity

White Noise — Don DeLillo, daughter surrounding self with artifacts

I have been neglecting my blog of late in favor of 1) studying for case interviews 2) being a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding 3) writing flash fiction every day as part of The Undeniables 4) figuring out a new job. (That list is in temporal, not necessarily priority order.)

Anyway, I have been sitting at my laptop not writing flash fiction for about an hour now, and I figured I might as well take a break (by doing other writing, apparently). I’ve actually been meaning to post about open to access to information for the last few weeks, inspired largely by the joy flooding my nerdy heart as I pored over Bridgespan case studies and articles, but that would take longer, and I still do need to write that piece of fiction before midnight, so I’ll save that for another night. Also, families and communities. (This entire blog is just me writing about things I’m interested in writing about, isn’t it?)

Anyway. The notes above were written long enough ago that I kind of can’t remember the context of all of them — which, since this post was ostensibly meant to be about transactive memory and the costs of storing information externally — is profoundly ironic and self-fulfilling. Mostly, I think I just wanted to link to this New Yorker article about a married philosopher professor couple who have pushed for the inclusion of neuroscience in discussions about consciousness:

The guiding obsession of their professional lives is an ancient philosophical puzzle, the mind-body problem: the problem of how to understand the relationship between conscious experience and the brain. Are they different stuffs: the mind a kind of spirit, the brain, flesh? Or are they the same stuff, their seeming difference just a peculiarly intractable illusion? And if they are the same stuff, if the mind is the brain, how can we comprehend that fact? What can it possibly mean to say that my experience of seeing blue is the same thing as a clump of tissue and membrane and salty liquid?

This is one of those articles I read several years ago that has since been bouncing around in my own brain (or, I suppose, I should say, bouncing around in what I perceive as my consciousness). The couple is the ultimate example of transactive memory, in that they actively cultivate each other as extensions of self:

And they are monists in life as they are in philosophy: they wonder what sort of organism their marriage is, its body and its mental life, beginning when they were unformed and very young-all those years of sharing the same ideas and the same dinners. When they met, Paul and Pat were quite different, from each other and from what they are now: he knew about astronomy and electromagnetic theory, she about biology and novels. But as time went on they taught each other what they knew, and the things they didn’t share fell away. […] Paul sometimes thinks of Pat and himself as two hemispheres of the same brain-differentiated in certain functions but bound together by tissue and neuronal pathways worn in unique directions by shared incidents and habit. This is not a fantasy of transparency between them: even one’s own mind is not transparent to oneself, Paul believes, so to imagine his wife’s brain joined to his is merely to exaggerate what is actually the case-two organisms evolving into one in a shared shell.

The couple goes on to describe the process through which they have shaped one another’s frameworks and understanding of philosophy. At some level, I consider their relationship, rationally bound and discussed as it is, to be profoundly romantic. Pat and Paul have dedicated their marriage to exploring something they are both passionate about, and they freely share with each other in order to multiply the scope and impact of their research.

The other fragments at the beginning of this post were working toward a theme I have more or less dealt with already here (not that doing so generally stops me from writing about something again). I assume I had a conversation with someone at some point about how terrifying it is to have so much information stored on the Internet, where it technically does not belong to you. (I will guess that this was with Machiko, but I was kind of talking about these things to everyone all summer, so who knows?) I attended a Toni Morrison lecture at the Louvre in 2006, and she talked about how she felt like she lost a piece of herself when her house burned down; there is writing you can never get back.

A few months later, when my shiny new beautifully matte black MacBook was stolen, I was much more upset about having lost the notes I had in there from my first few months studying abroad, some journal pieces, some early drafts of fiction and random thoughts about Virginia Woolf. My mom, in an attempt to be reassuring, told me, “Well, you can just write it all again.”

That utterance still strikes me as the moment in which I felt most disconnected from my mother, ever. It was all kinds of teenage and writer angst rolled up into a “Holy shit, you don’t know me at all!” epiphany.

Words, books, memory, identity, etc., etc. I had an interesting conversation about books and material culture this afternoon, while checking out the Weegee exhibit at MOCA. Go see it. I’m sorry this post is not all that coherent or interesting; you should really just read the article about the Churchlands.


Brain mush: Mind odysseys

"Paper Clips!" by Tyler Howarth

Got 10 minutes (in addition to the ones you were going to spend reading this post)? Make a list of everything you can do with a paper clip. No, seriously. We’ll wait for you here. Then read the first footnote.* (You should also know, in the interest of metablogging, that I threw this in here after completing the rest of the post, to justify the image.)

Udeitha: “I don’t think blogging is going to make you any more coherent.”

Yes, well, I don’t think another four hours of reading case studies and industry analyses will, either.

Work was a bit of a struggle for the first half-hour today; I was working with a student one-on-one on a draft of a short story that’s due Thursday — a story she’s been actively not writing for the last two weeks. We’ve made a ton of progress lately on varying sentence structure and incorporating more details, but for 30 minutes as I was working with her on fleshing out her main character, she become borderline nonverbal.

“Why is she going to miss her friends?”

“Because she likes them.”

“Why did she like them?”

“They were fun.”

“What makes them fun?”

“They’re not boring.”

“OK, think about your best friend. What’s your favorite thing about her?”

“I’ve known her for a long time.”

“How does that make you like her?”

“She’s fun.”

(I’ll let you guess what makes her fun. We finally broke out of tautology fun time after we discovered that the main character’s hobby was photography. She takes pictures of “everything.” Because it’s there. She takes pictures of leaves because it’s pretty.)

This is a 13-year-old who can correctly define words like “sardonic” and “impecunious,” but says “That’s weird” about everything. I have taken to saying “new adjective” every time she says “weird,” and we’ve probably cut usage by about 80 percent (down to 2-3 times/hr).

As a word junkie, I found today’s session excruciating, for myriad reasons,** and beyond doubting my abilities to engage youngsters, I was more than a little concerned with whether we (the education system, society, a not-quite-bibliophilic culture) are hampering our collective and individual abilities to articulate ourselves. As I worked in journalism and attended conventions of varying levels of nerdiness (ACES wins, on so many levels), I had the pleasure of hearing multiple experts remind us that readers have short attention spans. No one has the time or inclination to read complex analyses of issues. Lies. All lies! Everyone within a culture actively contributes to it, and pandering to shorter attention spans also creates them.

During my walk home — which was lovely, since I was heading west as the sun was tinging the clouds and contrails pink — I also started worrying about whether public education (or culture, or visual media, or whatever else) squashes creativity.  My friend Jessica, who works at the same academy, mentioned that her second graders freak out when presented with free-writing time. I loved free writing, and one of my favorite memories of elementary school is being part of an Odyssey of the Mind team in the fourth grade. I can’t remember what the activity was called, but we did a warm-up at some of our sessions where an adult would hand us an ordinary object, and we would pass it around the circle making up different explanations of what the object was. (Think “Props,” one of my favorite improv games.)

Now I’m wondering if I love improv, logic problems and lateral thinking puzzles*** because I’m just that type of nerd, or whether I was just inculcated with a love for challenges as an impressionable child. (And if that’s the case, if that’s possible, I am a complete advocate for breeding it in all children.) When I was about 7, my mother went back to Taiwan for a few weeks, leaving my older brother and me under the care of our engineer father, and I distinctly remember him tucking me in at night and asking me logic and math problems in place of bedtime stories.****

I suppose I’m a little anxious about the future and kids these days, as the prematurely old coot that I sometimes am. More than that, though, I’m disappointed, because I’ve seen the tremendous capacity for creativity that young people have, especially when they are given the opportunity to express themselves and placed in an environment of high expectations. We aren’t doing enough to foster divergent thinking, and it’s weird.

Update (completed about 20 minutes later): Speaking of creativity and the need for innovative solutions, I just read about this program: “Wash and Learn” stations student-teachers in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods to encourage young children to read or get homework help while their parents do laundry. (The student-teachers also gain one-on-one teaching experience, the parents get a little bit of quiet time, and the laundromat owner gains added value.) Also, this quote is just awesome:

For example, when Rodney Pearson, 6, walked in with a shy demeanor and a pair of drumsticks, Mrs. Smith asked him if he wanted to come over and read and he shook his head no. Then, as the boy was walking away slowly, she asked if he wanted to read about dinosaurs. He pivoted around and was soon sitting on a lap, lost in a tale of meat- and plant-eaters.

* I first heard of this exercise at a corps member-led CY session about rethinking public education, also how I learned of RSA Animate. (Watch this video of Sir Ken Robinson discussing new educational paradigms; it’s awesome.) Nick wanted to kick of the session by having all of us consider divergent thinking. Researchers did a longitudinal study, asking different groups to come up with all of the possible uses of a paper clip. Kindergarteners are able to come up with hundreds of uses, and as you move upward in age brackets, people come up with fewer and fewer responses. As Nick put it, highly divergent thinkers are less likely to restrict themselves by limiting the size of the paper clip — it can be a giant paper clip statue! I had my copy editing students (about 25 19- to 21-year-olds) start with this exercise last week, and the majority had fewer than 15, with only two who had more than 20. (It was earlyish on a Sunday, and they stopped trying after about 7 minutes.)

** Such as, for example, my student nonchalantly drawing on a textbook cover with a pen. (It’s hers, she had to buy it, so that makes it OK! I suggested that she resell it, but her dad donated last year’s books back to the tutoring academy … because he’s weird.) She was also manhandling a paperback against the edge of a table, until she realized I was cringing at her. (I just spent a few minutes trying to find that FoxTrot strip where Paige uses a paperback as a spitshield because her mother is raving about literature, and Andy stops, wipes her mouth and asks “Did you break the spine of that book?” That will be me, future children.

*** The childhood Christmas present I remember most clearly was a set of three books of lateral thinking puzzles.

**** He did also tell bedtime stories, for the record. There was an amazing one about an animal sneezing into an over-peppered bowl of noodles, which ends up as a wig on a hippopotamus — I guess you had to be there.